Now that the Lord of the Rings reread is complete, I wanted to talk briefly about the experience as a whole: what I’ve learned from it, what surprised me, and generally what was good and bad about it. Spoilers and navel-gazing after the jump.
What I Learned About the Book
I’m really delighted to say that the re-read showed me that LotR is a much better book than I had recognized.
The main revelation to me was the prose, which previously I had not noticed and had vaguely assumed was nothing to write home about. Every time I found that I was wrong, I just wriggled in delight: both the paragraph-level examples of brilliant rhythm, and the sheer beauty of some sections. (Without re-reading the entire re-read to refresh my memory—because seriously, recursive much?—I think my favorite still might be Tom’s description of the history of the Barrow-downs, all the way back in Fellowship I.7.)
Other happy surprises were the big-picture structure of the book, which I hadn’t consciously broken down before; discovering Denethor in all his psychologically realistic complexity; glorying in the entire first book of Return of the King, which is now my favorite; and “Well, I’m back,” which was not previously my go-to example for bittersweet perfection.
I’m still not convinced that the pacing of the book always worked as well as it could, especially early on. I have a new-found conviction that putting almost everything Aragorn and Arwen in an Appendix was a really terrible idea. And I will never stop wishing that Tolkien did more with the female characters. But the re-read did what I hoped it would: it let me rediscover a book that had become too familiar to me, and what I found was better than I’d hoped.
What I Wish I’d Done Differently
Just one thing: I wish I’d been able to keep to a chapter a week. I’m not going to apologize for balancing my responsibilities as seemed best to me, but I recognize that it had a suboptimal effect on the re-read. It made it harder for people to follow along, and for me to see the book as a whole, not just a series of chapters. (Indeed, now that we’re done I am fighting the urge to sit down and read the book straight through, to see how it reads as one single thing after the chapter-by-chapter dissection. It feels incredibly self-indulgent, though, and, as I said above, recursive. I mean, re-reading to evaluate the re-read? And besides, since my reading time is scarce, it wouldn’t really be “straight through” anyway.) Also, I know I focused on different things over time, which is probably natural, but I would have liked to have been more consciously aware of the shifts.
People have occasionally been kind enough to ask what I might do for a project after finishing the re-read, so let me address that here: nothing. At least nothing formal or large-scale.
I once estimated that each re-read post took a minimum of five hours. Most took more than that. And I am the kind of person who has an overdeveloped sense of responsibility (it’s going to get me into trouble some day), and therefore always has a list going in the back of her head of the things she ought to be doing. It is a great relief to no longer have “LotR post” as an item on that list, where it psychologically leans on me.
For the moment, I plan to focus on my sadly-neglected personal booklog. I’m not ruling out the possibility of attempting some similar project in the future, but there’s nothing that particularly jumps out at me now.
A quick tally suggests that I’ve written somewhere over 100,000 words of re-read posts, which is about the length of a good-sized novel, over almost two and a half years. In that time, my father died; our daughter went from an infant who couldn’t sit up on her own to an astonishingly talkative toddler who regularly makes us marvel at the fact that she’s a person; my husband published one book and completed the first draft of another; and I started and administered an annual charitable fundraiser. That’s a lot of life, and re-reading The Lord of the Rings has been a big part of my mental landscape during it. Despite my comments above, I will miss it.
The re-read also contributed to my life in an unexpected way: it was the reason for my first being on programming at a con (including for a panel with Tom Shippey (!!)). Since then I’ve been on programming at several other cons, which seems to have gone over well and which I’ve enjoyed a great deal.
But the most important thing is that I wouldn’t have stuck with it if it weren’t for you all, everyone who commented here or said hello in person or in some way let me know that these posts were being read. It’s not just the responsibility I felt, it was the anticipation of what people would say that would be surprising and enlightening and delightful. So many people have helped me see aspects of the book in a different light, or told me things I didn’t know, or simply shared their reactions and added to my understanding of the many ways people approach texts and the different meanings that LotR has to its readers. I seriously could not have done it without you all, and I’m very grateful.
So let me end this post with questions to you: what do you wish we’d talked about more? (I thought about re-reading the re-read to see if we’d left major questions dangling, but again: not only recursive, but a good-sized novel even without the comments.) Do you have any summing-up or overall thoughts, here at the end? Or any suggestions for awesome books I should read in my new vast (I wish!) quantities of free time?
My thanks and best wishes to you all.
Kate Nepveu was born in South Korea and grew up in New England. She now lives in upstate New York where she is practicing law, raising a family, battling her disbelief that the re-read is actually finished, and (in her copious free time) writing at Dreamwidth and her booklog.